Now Playing: Zombi Child at The Film Lab
While early depictions of zombies in cinema, such as White Zombie (1931), drew upon traditions of Haitian voodoo, zombies post-George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) have often been separated from this history. Filmmakers have chosen instead a method of zombification that erases the racialized history of the zombie, relying on things like radiation and contagious viruses to spread the condition. We’ve come so far from these earlier traditions that many viewers are predisposed to read zombies as an allegory of capitalist consumption, a formula most distinctly popularized by Romero’s sequel set in a shopping mall, Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child makes the exciting decision not only to restore the jettisoned cultural history of the zombie, but to take it up as a central concept of the film. Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) is the sole student of Haitian descent in a prestigious French boarding school founded by Napoleon. Her classmate, Fanny (Louise Labeque), befriends her, but still presses her to fit in. When Fanny asks her homogenously white group of friends to let her join their clique, they debate the pros and cons: is she ‘cool’ or is she ‘weird’? An exam dictated by expectations projected on to her by their white world.
Simultaneously, we see the mostly silent story of Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), a zombie slave in 1962 Haiti: his death, subsequent forced labor on a sugar plantation, and eventual escape to find something else. The film’s parallel editing weaves the two plot threads together, keeping the story of the whitewashed post-colonial present always in tension with the racialized violence of its past, and making this violence’s impact on the present impossible to ignore. Given who, when, and where they are, the girls are predisposed to what you might call ‘cringe,’ as in a scene where they sing along with pale enthusiasm to an ill-chosen rap song that brags about the speaker’s blackness.
Many of the film’s most effecting scenes come from stolen private moments Mélissa has out from under the influence of her white peers. An honest phone conversation where she confesses her fear of revealing non-European tastes in music. Best of all, a moment when Mélissa is left alone while the white girls decide if she is one of them. Isolated in a candle lit room she plays music to herself and dances as she wants to, without the pressure of watching eyes. The scene feels like a blissful beat of freedom, but only under the nominal time frame allotted by the judgement happening just outside the door. It’s a contained liberation, something that feels free but happens only on the terms of a ruling class; it’s a mesmerizing moment that sums up the character’s burden.
Though this is not precisely a traditional horror film with recurring well-timed ‘scares,’ every bit of the film feels awash with something haunted. The lush green of Haiti turned grim gray in the moonlight. The fluorescent flatness of the school classroom made ambient by candlelight during secret hangouts after hours. And, yes, we do reach a voodoo climax that tips the film beyond historical drama into something surreal. And. There. Are. Choral. Numbers. Think loosely Mädchen in Uniform (1931) meets I Walked With A Zombie (1943).
Zombi Child screens this weekend at The Film Lab. Tickets are available at https://thefilmlab.org.
Sat, Feb 22, 9:30; Sun, Feb 23, 7:00